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BOOKS & THE CULTURE Across the Tracks in Austin BY RACHEL PROCTOR ndrew Garrison is an awardwinning filmmaker and professor at the University of Texas. His narrative and documentary films consistently examine the meaning of place, and the role of art and media in harnessing its power to effect social change. Originally from Florida, he worked in Appalachia for several years. His most recent project, The Wilgus Stories, is a narrative trilogy about a boy growing up in rural Kentucky, surrounded by friends and family who are “mostly trying to do the right thing for each other, but not always succeeding.” He is currently working on a documentary about Project Row House, a Houston program that uses art as the engine for community revitalization, as well as two narrative works set in East Austin and the former Yugoslavia. Last year Garrison launched a course called the East Austin Documentary Project. Many UT students receive a diploma without venturing into the part of Austin just across 1-35. But in this course they are challenged to visit the other side of Austin’s “tracks” and produce a work that is not only about people from East Austin, but for them as well. This summer, East Austinites demonstrated their appreciation of the project by turning out by the hundreds to the screenings, which took place in an east side church and cafe. The next screening will take place December 5. For more information, contact agarrison . Texas Observer: What is the purpose of the East Austin Docmnentary Project? Andrew Garrison: First, the project fulfills my interest in meeting people and understanding the city I live in. Second, I want my students to have the experi ence of making a work for a specific audiencean audience that can respond to it. There’s nothing more difficult or more exciting. I also want the project to introduce students to collaborating with someone in that process of storytelling. TO: How does this change the process of documentary-making? AG: It is saying there is value in the local, the nearby. There are great stories to be told all around us. It is also in contrast to extractive filmmakinggoing into some place, finding the story, getting it and getting out. When these students document stories, those are not just the students’ storiesthey originate and belong to the subjects.There’s a collaboration that takes place from the moment a subject says, “Yes, I’ll talk to you.” That collaboration deepens as the conversations and interviews continue. After the students finally structure the piece in the editing process, they show the work to the people who participated so they can ask, “Is this right, does this make sense, is this what you said?” It completes the circuit and starts a new level of collaboration because the student will feel the consequences of the storygood or bad. However, this is a five or ten-week introductory course, so in a lot of ways it’s the opposite of the very thing I’m trying to create. The continuity I’d like to see between individuals will have to be through the class. In the long run, I hope we create long-term relationships between people and the project. TO: What interested you in starting such a project? AG: It comes from working in community-based media for years. When I was in college in Ohio in the early ’70s, a handful of friends and I decided to form a political media group when we graduated. We called ourselves the Dayton Community Media Workshop and we made films, did local public radio, and this emerging portable video. One of our ideas was to show “political” films about feminism, or working class mothers or whatever, to audiences in local parks. We thought we’d get people to come to the screenings with slide/tape shows of pictures and interviews we did with people around the neighborhood. We’d project the pictures timed to interviews and music on tape, as the opening for the political movie. When people came to the first screening, they loved seeing and hearing themselves and their neighbors, but then they left during the “political” movie. When that happened, the light went on: People love to see the things that are real. We abandoned the movies and concentrated on making local slide/tape documentaries. We did that over two summers in four different neighborhoods, finding stories and issues and playing them back in parks. TO: What kind of relationship do the students in the project have to East Austin? AG: A few students have some other experience in East Austin and are telling stories they’re connected to. A percentage of the class are Latino and see elements of their family history and culture reflected in East Austin. But most of the students conic from middle-class suburbs or small towns around Texas; East Austin is new to them, so the course makes them confront some of their own assumptions about class and culture… I think one way you [do that] is by developing relationships of mutual respect, by suspending judgments, and hearing people’s stories. Having a camera is a passport: it gives 22 THE TEXAS OBSERVER 12/6/02